When I first came across the #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen Twitter campaign my initial reaction was one of frustration. First, I shared the frustration of Mikki Kendall, the originator of the hashtag, in her grievances with the mainstream feminist movement, but I also felt frustrated with Kendall, the thousands of users of the hashtag, and some of the conversations it has sparked.
It's not that I find the hashtag divisive; it's just that we are already divided. A single stroke of the keyboard won't solve the years of marginalization, broken promises of solidarity, and the lack of accountability that continues to be one of the biggest faults of the mainstream feminist movement. And it's not that I find the hashtag unnecessarily incendiary. In fact, I find it brave, very necessary, and long overdue. When our concerns are actively ignored, dismissed, or excluded by the mainstream movement, criticisms are valid and action is necessary.
What frustrates me is that in pointing out mainstream feminism’s failure to adequately have our backs, we have ignored our failures to each other.
In nearly every discussion to come out of this (and I’m grateful for the valuable and difficult dialogue it has allowed) “women of color” have been lumped together as if we are one monolithic category, a diverse-yet-homogeneous group. I realize we use the phrase out of necessity and out of the context and history from which it originated and that it is an identity of solidarity, “a commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been ‘minoritized.’’ It’s not the language that I take issue with, but the myth of representation it suggests.
In the same way feminism has been critiqued for reinforcing the gender categories it seeks to deconstruct, we have created a counter-dialogue to represent “women of color” by using the very category that has been used to justify our exclusion from — and tokenist representation within — the mainstream movement.
The same way #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen seeks to call out mainstream feminism for the assumption that it is possible to speak for “all women” as if we are the same, we have come out in droves to speak for “women of color” as if by factor of our non-whiteness we are all same and have experienced discrimination in the same ways.
There are several problems with this and no easy solutions, but in attempt to move this conversation forward, consider this:
1. If we categorize all women as white women or women of color, what happens to the women that are both?
As a Latina woman, I am both white and a woman of color. This is true not only in the separate boxes I am forced to select on paperwork, but in how I am viewed by others and how I view myself. For those of us white in race but “other” in ethnicity, the negotiation of identity between “white woman” and “woman of color” is at best uncomfortable and at worst invisible.
Our ability to be seen as white is undoubtedly privileged, but our inability to fully be viewed as “women of color” marginalizes us further. We are both and neither.
The response from white women to #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen has largely been a commitment to “shut up and listen.” While I agree that this is necessary, when you’re a white woman of color, when do you shut up and when do you speak up? Should we claim our whiteness, remain silent, and listen to the “women of color” who claim to also represent us? Should we latch onto our ethnic identities and to the guise of solidarity with our fellow “women of color” and offer lessons to the “other” white women who have wronged us? Should we feel privileged in our ability to even make this choice and remain paralyzed by the recognition of that privilege? Or should we be committed to our responsibility to be good allies to both groups when we are not recognized fully as members of either?
2. Women of color haven’t succeeded at intersectionality.
It’s not that we haven’t tried to acknowledge the various systemic means of oppression and their intersections — in fact, it was women of color who pointed out their very existence. And while we’ve done a better job than the mainstream movement, we also haven’t succeeded.
While I agree that white feminism has always wrongfully argued that gender should trump race, the category “women of color” suggests that a combination of race and gender should trump class and privilege, able-bodied-ness, sexual orientation, nationality, age, etc.
There are points where our socioeconomic status, and the privilege that it allows, unites and divides us more than race and gender. Those of us speaking to this issue are all privileged in the sense that we are educated enough to even engage in these conversations. We have access to the internet to voice our concerns and read those of others, and we are visible enough to even be considered marginalized when there are others so far in the margins they aren't "seen," let alone heard.
These are not victories to be celebrated but privileges to be acknowledged. As much as we try to speak for “women of color” we can never claim to speak for those we’ve not spoken to.
Unfortunately, along the way we have failed to include others and we need to acknowledge that before we can move forward.
3. There isn't solidarity among women of color.
When we rally around this critique together as “women of color” it creates an allusion that there is solidarity among those of us who have been excluded by mainstream feminism. If the only thing that unites us is our exclusion from the mainstream movement (and our justified opposition to that exclusion) we do not have solidarity either. When we don’t recognize that even our own practices can be essentialist and exclusionary, we cannot claim that we are doing solidarity, intersectionality, or even feminism better.
None of this is to suggest that we should have never pointed the finger. I’m not asking us to cut mainstream feminists some slack — we already have for far too long.
As these discussions continue, we should hold ourselves to the same standards to which we hold others, and continue to acknowledge our own privilege. We should be self-reflexive, take criticisms, and make meaningful changes. We should shut up amongst ourselves as much as we speak up on behalf of each other.
While having even further divided camps of feminism is not the solution, neither is turning our back on the mainstream feminist movement. If we ever hope to have a feminism that is truly representative, we need to look for ways to find a better feminism together.